Diane Butera was the picture of health 10 years ago. She was a yoga instructor who felt stronger than she had in a long time. So, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, it was a shock.
“It felt like I was having an out-of-body experience because it was so surreal for me,” she says.
Diane underwent surgery, followed by chemotherapy. She was scared and worried and had trouble sleeping. She says, “I would stare into the mirror and look into the eyes of this person that I didn’t recognize and wonder, ‘Who am I?’ And there were nights that I would get out of bed and lay on the bathroom floor and just cry from fear and pain and sometimes anger.”
To help cope with the emotions she was experiencing, Diane returned to practicing yoga and revisited the mindfulness techniques she taught others.
“There is great scientific evidence about how mindfulness works and how meditation works,” Diane says. “You trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which says, ‘Hey, there’s no threat.’ Everything starts to calm down, there’s physiological responses, and it’s a wonderful and simple way to find some peace of mind.”
In partnership with Oregon Cancer Foundation, Diane will lead a virtual, extra gentle yoga class with guided mediation on Thursday, May 21 at 6:30 p.m. The class is free to attend, but registration is required.
Reducing stress during the health crisis
Dr. Michelle Niesley, a naturopathic doctor who specializes in oncology at Pacific Integrative Oncology in Eugene, says while our bodies need a small amount of stress to function properly, too much stress can suppress the immune system and put the body at increased risk for illness. This is especially concerning now, when many people’s daily routines have changed drastically, due to the current health crisis.
“Over the past couple of months, many people have experienced a rapid evolution of having to work from home and having to educate children from home. Our sleep schedules are off and the way we are eating is different,” she says.
To help give your immune system a boost, Dr. Niesley suggests focusing on three key areas: diet, sleep and exercise.
Poor eating habits can drive stress levels, which can increase cravings. It may be easier to grab unhealthy pre-packaged meals or snacks, but Dr. Niesley says they are not doing your body any favors in the long run.
“Those foods may make us feel satisfied, full and happy for a short amount of time, but those foods and snacks are not good fixes when it comes to building our immune system and really helping us to handle our stress better.”
Dr. Niesley advises her patients to limit processed carbohydrates and refined sugars and instead to choose more lean proteins, like chicken and fish, and eat more fruits and vegetables in a wide variety of colors.
“Those different colored fruits and vegetables represent different groups of nutrients,” she says. “So, the vitamins and minerals that you’re going to get out of carrots or other orange foods is going to be different than what you’re going to get from tomatoes or the high vitamin C content in berries or citrus.”
Sleep is an important part of physical and mental health. During sleep, the brain and body do a number of important jobs that help us maintain good health, including lowering blood pressure and repairing cells and tissues.
There are many reasons a cancer patient may have trouble sleeping, including:
- Physical changes caused by the cancer or surgery
- Side effects of drugs or other treatments
- Being in the hospital
- Stress about having cancer
- Health problems not related to the cancer
Focusing on good sleep habits can help you fall asleep more easily and stay asleep. Try to stick to a regular bedtime and turn off all screens an hour or two before sleep.
“The type of light that computers and cell phones give off sends a signal to our brain and tells us that it’s still daytime,” says Dr. Niesley.
Trade the screens for reading a book or listening to a guided meditation to help you unwind before bed.
“Some of the same challenges that you faced today are also going to be present tomorrow. You’re going to be better able to face them if you get a good 7-8 hours of quality sleep.”
Aim to get at least 30 minutes of exercise throughout the day. Studies have found that exercise during cancer treatment can actually change the tumor microenvironment and trigger stronger anti-tumor activity in your immune system. Many research studies also support the idea that exercising during treatment helps you feel better by reducing depression and anxiety, increasing energy and strength and reducing pain.
If exercising for 30 minutes is too taxing, Dr. Niesley suggests breaking it up into three 10-minute blocks of activity.
“That could include walking down the driveway to get the mail. It could be doing chair squats—sitting in your chair, standing up and sitting back down. Any amount of physical activity will help your body get the blood flowing and it will release some stress hormones,” she says “Another benefit is that when patients are exercising, their body is a little more fatigued at night and it’s easier for them to fall asleep.”
Dr. Niesley will lead a free webinar hosted by Oregon Cancer Foundation on Thursday, May 28, at 10:30 a.m. She will address sleep issues, stress and other challenges that impact the immune system. During this informative presentation, learn more about nutrition, digestive health and alternative therapies for stress relief and have your questions answered. To register for the webinar, click here.
To learn more about other upcoming classes, check out the our events page.